Citizens of modern industrial societies like the United States live in the midst of a wide array of technologies-old and new. Most Americans now use a computer at home or work, drive automobiles controlled by computer chips, watch weather reports with satellite images only hours old, and take pharmaceuticals based on new biotechnologies unknown a decade ago. The media carry frequent reports of the results of scientific research, with a strong emphasis on biomedical research and results. The recent landing on Mars of an explorer that is essentially operated from the earth, and live coverage of the vehicle's movements and preliminary findings symbolize the interesting mix of technology and science experienced by the public.
Modern science and technology are only a part of the daily array of interesting and important news events. As interesting as science and technology may be to scientists and others knowledgeable about their activities, among the general public they compete with the demands of family and work, and many entertainment and educational opportunities. Individuals in modern industrial societies have to make choices about how they spend their time, the issues that they will attend to (if any), and the level of participation they will devote to them.
The level of interest in science and technology in the United States has remained high during the last two decades, reaching a new high point in 1997. Using a 0-100 Index of Issue Interest, the mean level of public interest in new scientific discoveries has risen from 61 in 1979 to 70 in 1997. (See figure 7-1 and appendix tables 7-1, 7-2, and 7-3.) In a parallel pattern, public interest in issues concerning the use of new inventions and technologies has grown from 59 in 1979 to 69 in 1997. Interest in medical discoveries has remained high throughout the last decade. There is some evidence that interest in environmental issues has declined slightly. In the early 1990s, interest in environmental issues was comparable to the level of interest in medical discoveries; by 1997, interest in environmental issues was about the same as interest in economic policy issues.
The level of interest in a particular issue area reflects both a core group of citizens with a long-term interest in that particular issue, plus some citizens who become more interested due to short-term policy disputes or activities. The nearly two decades of data collected by the Science & Engineering Indicators program demonstrate several of these patterns. The incoming Reagan Administration focused substantial attention on a reexamination of economic policies in the early 1980s, leading to a series of major disputes with Congress. These policy differences and the extensive media coverage of the debate were reflected in a substantial increase in the levels of public interest in economic issues and business conditions from 1979 to 1981, with additional growth of interest in 1993. The current Administration has emphasized the need for a strong scientific base for the United States and has focused attention on the World Wide Web and on increasing student access to computers in elementary and secondary schools.
Individuals with higher levels of formal education and more high school and college coursework in science and mathematics were significantly more likely to register higher levels of interest in new scientific discoveries, the use of new inventions and technologies, and space exploration than other citizens. (See figure 7-2 and appendix table 7-3.) In contrast, individuals with higher levels of formal education expressed only a slightly higher interest score for medical discoveries, nuclear power, and environmental issues than other adults.
In 1997, men were more likely than women to indicate a high level of interest in the use of new inventions and technologies, and space exploration. Women were more likely to express a high level of interest in medical discoveries and environmental issues than men.
In contrast to the levels of interest reported above, American citizens report lower levels of information about these same issues. Nevertheless, the levels of informedness about selected scientific issues have risen over the past two decades. Using a 0-100 Index of Issue Informedness, the mean level of informedness about new scientific discoveries has increased from 36 in 1979 to 49 in 1997. Informedness about new inventions and technologies experienced a similar increase-from 35 in 1979 to 44 in 1997. (See figure 7-3 and appendix tables 7-4, 7-5, and 7-6.) Throughout the last decade, the public reported the highest recorded mean level of informedness about medical discoveries.
It is important to understand how individuals assess their own knowledge of these subjects. For many purposes-from deciding which cleaning product will be most effective to writing a legislator on a current issue-it is the individual's self-assessment of his or her knowledge that will either encourage or discourage a given behavior (Rosenau 1974, Miller 1983a, and Miller 1996b). Only 16 percent of American adults think of themselves as being very well-informed about space exploration, and only 10 percent think they are very well-informed about the use of nuclear power to generate electricity.
Comparatively, 28 percent of American adults feel that they are very well-informed about medical discoveries, and 23 percent reported that they are very well-informed about environmental issues. Medical concerns and issues tend to affect daily life for more people than issues such as nuclear power or space exploration, and it is not surprising that there is a more pervasive sense of being better informed about more personal issues than more distant ones. Similarly, individuals who can see the air pollution around major cities or who have to modify their plans due to ozone alerts or polluted beaches may feel better informed about environmental issues than about more distant topics.
The influence of formal education and prior coursework in science and mathematics on most individuals' perception of their understanding about scientific and technical issues is substantial. In 1997, for example, individuals who did not graduate from high school had a mean score of 42 on informedness about the use of new inventions and technologies, compared to 54 for graduate degree-holders. (See figure 7-2 and appendix table 7-6.) In contrast, adults who did not complete high school had a mean score of 58 for informedness about medical discoveries, compared to 61 for graduate degree-holders.
Although the levels of self-reported understanding are significantly lower than the levels of interest in the same issues, the levels of self-perceived understanding are increasing. The sense of being very well-informed about new scientific discoveries increased from 13 percent in 1995 to 19 percent in 1997. Similarly, the sense of being very well-informed about the use of new inventions and technologies increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 16 percent in 1997. As discussed later in this chapter, this rise in self-perceived understanding parallels an increase in the use of science-related media and informal educational resources.
Given the large number of issues on the public policy agenda at any point in time, it is impossible for citizens to remain interested in and informed about all public policy matters. In a pluralistic society like the United States, some individuals may follow agricultural issues and foreign policy issues closely, but have little interest in science or technology issues. Other citizens may have a high level of interest in science and technology policy issues as well as foreign policy issues, but no interest in agricultural issues. All citizens, including virtually all legislators, must be selective regarding the areas and issues about which they seek to be sufficiently informed to participate in policy discussions. This process of issue specialization is a fact of political life in modern industrial societies.
Citizens who display a high level of interest in an issue area, who feel well-informed about it, and who show at least a minimal pattern of information acquisition are classified as attentive to that issue. A citizen with a high level of interest in a particular issue, but who does not feel well-informed about it, is classified as a member of the interested public for that issue. Citizens without a high level of interest in a specific issue are referred to as the residual public for that issue area. There is an attentive public for every major public policy area; these publics differ in size and composition.
Reflecting the increased sense of informedness noted above, the percentage of American adults attentive to science and technology policy increased over the past decade, rising from 11 percent in 1988 to 14 percent in 1997. This attentive public includes approximately 27 million American adults and is the same size as the attentive public for economic policy. By comparison, 19 percent of Americans were attentive to medical discoveries in 1997, but only 12 percent were attentive to environmental issues. Only 5 percent of American adults were attentive to foreign policy and 4 percent to nuclear power issues. (See figure 7-4 and appendix table 7-7.)
There is a direct correlation between attentiveness to science and technology policy issues and years of formal schooling and the number of science and mathematics courses taken during high school and college. (See figure 7-5 and appendix table 7-8.) Only 15 percent of individuals with less than a high school diploma are attentive to science and technology policy issues, compared to 30 percent of graduate and professional degree-holders. Similarly, 10 percent of those with limited coursework in science and mathematics were attentive to science and technology policy issues, compared to 28 percent of those with nine or more high school or college science or math courses. Men were slightly more likely to be attentive to science and technology policy issues than women, but the magnitude of this difference was smaller in 1997 than in previous years.